Washington, D.C. challenges continue for beef industry
Denver, Colo. – With hundreds of cattlemen in Denver for National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s (NCBA) 2017 Cattle Industry Summer Business Meeting, Scott Yager, NCBA’s environmental counsel, and Ethan Lane, NCBA’s federal lands executive director, emphasized that Washington, D.C. is a hotbed for activity lately, and with a favorable administration in place, now is a prime time to make advancements for the agriculture industry.
During a July 14 meeting at the event, Yager and Lane summarized a variety of issues relative to legislation moving through Congress, including the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), Endangered Species Act modernization and mitigation.
One piece of legislation that has escaped the radar of many is RCRA, which is another of the wave of pieces of environmental legislation from the 1980s, similar to the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.
“RCRA was designed to regulate solid waste landfills and the management and transport of hazardous waste,” Yager said. “It was never designed to regulate agriculture, but a case in 2015 in a U.S. District Court in Washington State opened the door for RCRA to be used as a litigation tool against agriculture.”
Regulation of waste control is implemented through cooperative federalism, or a system where states are allowed to manage day-to-day operation of waste programs under regulations from the federal level.
“People might ask how agriculture can be regulated under RCRA,” he continued. “It started with a case by the Community Association for Restoration of the Environment (CARE) versus Cow Palace.”
Cow Palace, a cluster of four dairies in Washington State, was first targeted by CARE in the late 1990s with Clean Water Act allegations.
“Basically, they changed the dairies and redesigned the facilities to completely seal off the operation,” Yager explained. “CARE kept going after them, and they finally got it to stick to the wall that they were violating RCRA.”
“This is the first of its kind to have a legal decision saying agriculture is liable,” Yager commented. “The court completely ignored manure exemptions from RCRA and said the operations are liable for any nutrients that go below the root zone of crops, because that constitutes a disposal of solid waste.”
Yager noted that the courts failed to take into account that agriculture operations attempt to put the precise amount of manure on crops to get the best nutrient uptake.
“Farmers don’t want to waste their nutrients,” he continued. “It’s never going to be an exact science, but we try to be judicious with our use of manure as fertilizer.”
“This case says that a lot of people – not just dairies but also livestock, agriculture or even row croppers – who use manure fertilizer,” Yager explained. “This case sets a precedent that agriculture could be liable.”
Work is currently being done to emphasize the value of using manure as a fertilizer, including use of Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) design standards to benchmark use of fertilizers.
“Today, we’re working on legislation with Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) called the Farm Regulatory Certainty Act, which is designed to help prevent this type of thing in the future,” Yager said.
The act says that any operations who are in agreements with state or federal governments to amend nutrient issues would be shielded from all citizen lawsuits.
“This act encourages producers to work with the government if they have an issue to fix but also provides some protection,” Yager says. “Right now, we have to pass the bill through both houses of congress, but we have some good, bipartisan support, and we feel good about this legislation passing.”
For Lane, modernization of the ESA has been his top focus over the last several years.
“We’re in a position now, after engaging with the Western Governors’ Association on species conservation and ESA, where we have put the pieces into place to make some progress,” he explained. “It has been an interesting process.”
Part of the problem, according to Lane, is that there is an incentive to sue over species conservation, which hinders the process of recovery planning.
“What does a process look that is streamlined and works so we can get recovery planning to a point where there aren’t thousands of listed species with restrictions impacting landowners and no recovery plans,” Lane said. “How do we get ESA to work properly so it recognizes the wolf as ready to be delisted in this process?”
As a positive note, Lane said that there is enthusiasm from congressmen in positions capable of making change.
“Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) is the chairman of Environment and Public Works,” he said. “He is a champion for us on a lot of issues, but he is in the right place to deal with this issue. It’s a passion for him, and he’s ready to go.”
Lane also noted that legislation from Barrasso will likely be very reflective of recommendations from the Western Governors’ Association.
Other Senators, including Democrats, are also on board for the effort.
“We’ve tried a piecemeal approach, and it has not worked for us,” Lane continued, adding that hearings in the house will take up five bills that have all been seen in previous congresses. “Everyone understands the gravity and opportunity before us.”
Importantly, Lane stressed that ESA modernization is a multi-year effort, which will take the rest of this Congress.
“If we get a bill out of committee in the next few months, we have the rest of the year to push this effort across the finish line, which is an acceptable timeline,” Lane said. “We’re excited about ESA modernization going forward.”
Lane continued that, overall, NCBA and the agriculture community as a whole has more work to do in a variety of arenas.
“There’s a lot that we’re working on,” he said.
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.